SO Bob Dylan, how are you spending lockdown? “I’m sitting on my terrace lost in the stars, listening to the sounds of the sad guitars,” he replies softly.
I imagine the 79-year-old, still with those dark unruly curls, at home in Malibu, gazing into the night-time as a gentle summer breeze comes in from the Pacific Ocean.
Maybe he’s reclining in a favourite chair. Maybe he has a glass in hand of his own brand Heaven’s Door straight rye whiskey.
Can you provide me with an honest description of yourself? I ask. “I’m a man of contradictions, I’m a man of many moods,” he affirms.
Who do you compare yourself to? “I’m just like Anne Frank, like Indiana Jones and them British bad boys, the Rolling Stones.”
Am I correct in thinking you’re partial to the Eagles? “Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey, Take It To The Limit and let it go by.”
How do you spend your time outside of music? “I paint landscapes, and I paint nudes,” Dylan continues with a nod to his growing reputation as a visual artist.
Anything you really yearn for? “Give me that old-time religion, it’s just what I need.”
Then, in his low rumble, the singer with a momentous 60-year career behind him admits: “I’ve already outlived my life by far.”
So where are you heading next? “Three miles north of purgatory, one step from the great beyond,” he snaps back.
Dylan hangs up and I wake up. I must have been dreaming of a long-distance call to talk all things Rough And Rowdy Ways, his astonishing 39th studio album otherwise known as a long, dark night of the soul.
Man of mystery
Real interviews are once in a blue moon and his “answers” to my questions are, you guessed it, actual lines from his first collection of original songs since 2012’s Tempest.
But should we take these intriguing, first-person lyrics at face value since they come from music’s ultimate man of mystery, a master of smoke and mirrors?
It should be well-nigh impossible to find out. Dylan hasn’t revealed much to journalists since he sang about Mr Jones walking into the room with his pencil in his hand in 1965.
“There ought to be a law against you coming around,” sneered Bob on Ballad Of A Thin Man.
But he has spoken to university professor Douglas Brinkley for his only chat in advance of 71-minute Rough And Rowdy Ways, published by The New York Times.
Dylan gives this telling insight: “The lyrics are the real thing, tangible, they’re not metaphors.
“The songs seem to know themselves and they know that I can sing them, vocally and rhythmically. They kind of write themselves and count on me to sing them.”
Rarely has an album by a seasoned campaigner bristled with so much energy, invention and mischief. And, as Dylan is at pains to point out, it feels “in the moment”, a fitting and relevant soundtrack to a world which has shifted on its axis.
The scene is set by stark mind trip I Contain Multitudes, its title borrowed from Walt Whitman and by turns wistful, funny and, dare I say it, confessional.
It’s not the first time Dylan has alluded to his complex personality in his work.
Bob Dylan: Rough And Rowdy Ways
- I Contain Multitudes
- False Prophet
- My Own Version Of You
- I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You
- Black Rider
- Goodbye Jimmy Reed
- Mother Of Muses
- Crossing The Rubicon
- Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
- Murder Most Foul
Born under the twins sign Gemini on May 24, he sang, “I fought with my twin, that enemy within, ’til both of us fell by the way” on Where Are You Tonight? (Journey Through Dark Heat) from 1978’s Street Legal.
Here, there’s a different duality. “What more can I tell you?” he sighs over minimal backing. “I sleep with life and death in the same bed.”
But when asked if he ponders his own mortality during the new interview, Dylan gives a wrong-footing answer.
“I think about the death of the human race. The long strange trip of the naked ape,” he says.
“Not to be light on it, but everybody’s life is so transient. Every human being, no matter how strong or mighty, is frail when it comes to death. I think about it in general terms, not in a personal way.”
Rough And Rowdy Ways takes its name from a song by one of Dylan’s long-gone heroes, country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman, who helped pave the way for pop in the Thirties by writing and performing his own material.
There is a blizzard of namechecks on the album with Rodgers popping up in sublime Key West (Philosopher Pirate) along with Beat Generation poets and 20th Century music icons.
In measured tones, Dylan sings: “I was born on the wrong side of the railroad track, like Ginsberg, Corso and Kerouac, like Louis (Armstrong) and Jimmie and Buddy (Holly) and all of the rest.”
It’s as if he’s writing his own epitaph, placing himself in company of people he both admires and feels strongly connected to.
But the same song also includes this line: “12 years old, they put me in a suit, forced me to marry a prostitute.” So not everything should be taken as read!
Key West will surely go down as one of Dylan’s finest songs, a worthy companion to Blowin’ In The Wind or Like A Rolling Stone or Tangled Up In Blue or Not Dark Yet.
It casts the southern tip of Florida as America’s Shangri-La, a mythical “place to be if you’re looking for immortality” and finds the singer giving one of his most affecting vocals against the sweet, lilting sound of band member Donnie Herron’s accordion.
Elsewhere, “rough” and “rowdy” are suitable words for this uncompromising rollercoaster of an album, crowning a creative renaissance that started with 1997’s Time Out Of Mind.
On three authentic electric blues numbers, False Prophet, Goodbye Jimmy Reed and Crossing The Rubicon, he summons some of the old fire and brimstone from his born again gospel albums Slow Train Coming (1979) and Saved (1980).
All three are loaded with religious imagery without explicitly confirming whether Dylan has truly found God again, more the sort of language you might find on a Nick Cave record.
“I ain’t no false prophet, I just know what I know,” he snarls, possibly referring to his situation in the early Sixties when he was a reluctant “spokesman of a generation” for anthems like The Times They Are A-Changin’.
That said, biting efforts such as Oxford Town and Only A Pawn In Their Game were among the first to rail against racism and injustice in the States.
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll told of a black barmaid killed by a privileged, drunken white man “with a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger”.
Later, in 1975, he recorded the searing Hurricane in defence of murder rap boxer Rubin Carter, spitting out lyrics like these: “If you’re black you might as well not show up on the street, ’less you want to draw the heat.”
Today, it’s sad to think that some things never change with the appalling murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, the Mid West State where Dylan grew up.
“It sickened me no end to see George tortured to death like that,” he tells Douglas Brinkley.
“It was beyond ugly. Let’s hope justice comes swift for the Floyd family and for the nation.”
Of course, it’s Mississippi Delta blues legends like Jimmy Reed who first inspired Elvis, The Beatles, the Stones — and Dylan — tearing down racial barriers in the process.
Elvis became the catalyst for so many acts breaking through in the Sixties and he gets a mention on one of Rough And Rowdy Ways’ most beautifully realised tracks, Mother Of Muses.
To a tune redolent of Rock Of Ages, Dylan celebrates the glory of nature but also sings of World War Two generals who saved the world from Hitler’s tyranny “clearing a path for Presley to sing, carving a path for Martin Luther King”.
Elsewhere, an unsavoury character makes an appearance. Not to be confused with the Tom Waits track, there’s a wicked smile on the singer’s face when he rasps, “Black Rider, Black Rider hold it right there, the size of your c**k will get you nowhere” over sparse flamenco guitar.
The weirdest song is My Own Version Of You, which, in a literal sense, finds Dylan cast as a Dr Frankenstein character assembling body parts — “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” — to create his perfect companion. “Take the Scarface Pacino and the Godfather Brando, mix it up in a tank and get a robot commando,” he growls.
The deeper meaning is open to interpretation but I sense that it could be very lonely being Bob Dylan, so is his “creation” the only entity that feels the way he does?
If My Own Version Of You bears a sinister sound and unnerving undercurrents then I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You is the polar opposite.
The vibe is tender, the warm vocal framed by subtle backing singers, as Dylan offers unconditional love to a partner, to God, to who knows.
And that leaves us with the epic composition that served notice of this enduring artist’s return — the near 17-minute first single Murder Most Foul, the longest song of his career, eclipsing 1997’s Highlands by 15 seconds.
It trawls through the mists of time to that “dark day in Dallas, November ’63” when John F Kennedy was assassinated and describes the horror in dramatic, gory detail but somehow speaks for America’s troubled times of 2020.
The song moves from the blood-stained streets of the Texan city to a celebration of music and musicians that have soundtracked our lives for the decades since JFK’s demise, perhaps offering salvation in song. “Tommy can you hear me I’m the Acid Queen,” goes Dylan, referencing The Who’s rock opera, over minimal strings, piano and featherlight percussion.
Other shoutouts include The Beatles — “they’re gonna hold your hand” — John Lee Hooker, Thelonius Monk, Etta James, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, Henley and Frey of the Eagles, Beach Boy Carl Wilson and even Dickey Betts of The Allman Brothers.
There’s one important name missing, however, Dylan himself, still rough, rowdy and whip-smart 60 years after the boyish chancer from Hibbing, Minnesota, pitched up in the coffee shops of Greenwich Village, New York City, with guitar, harmonica and barely two beans to rub together.
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